The children who spent their first day of fourth grade with me when the towers fell downtown are freshmen in college this year while my new class of fourth graders were babies when it happened. And so with every anniversary my classroom experience is different. No longer will I have fourth graders coming in with their own vivid memories of the day, now they will be coming in knowing about it secondhand, through other people's stories, through the media, through books.
In 2001 books addressing anything related to the event were the last thing my students wanted. Those were hard days for all of us with the painful signs of the missing everywhere, the smoke, the smell, the sound of fighter planes and helicopters constantly overhead, our school's incessant bomb threats that took some children completely over the edge, school closings, anthrax scares (with a policeman coming to my classroom to check on a package I received scaring the kids even more), National Guard with machine guns out standing outside subway stations, military vehicles moving down Broadway, and more. We had school community members who had experienced personal loss and trauma and others who were displaced from their downtown homes and jobs. I wrote about our experiences on various online discussion groups and in response well-intentioned and concerned people from outside New York offered unsolicited book suggestions about other equally horrible events, about war --- books meant to create understanding, but books that weren't for us at that time. In late September 2001 I wrote:
... Yesterday, our first full day in the fourth grade, I wondered all day about my end of day read-aloud. The children were thrilled to see it on the schedule, but I worried about what I should read. Finally, after looking over my sure-fire hits I stuck with my pre-Tuesday book selection, The Best School Year Ever. It is a school story, completely off the wall funny, and it has a theme of tolerance and understanding (yes, it does, really!) I started reading and immediately worried as the narrator wrote of the Herdmans being like outlaws, that if they had lived in the Wild West they would have "blown" it up. I wondered, would those words scare? I discretely looked at the faces around me, (one of my most important teacher skills is this ability, long honed) but they just looked intrigued. I read further to the description of Imogene's science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) and they giggled. By the time I stopped, half way through the first chapter one, I relaxed; it seemed be a good choice. (But I'm sure going to keep on watching. The smoke may go away, but not the pain.)
One other book provided us with special solace: E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, a book that allowed us to consider life and death in a different place, a book that each child could enter and connect to as he or she needed to. A book I'd been starting the year with before 2001, it is one I continue to use as it brings out everything I want for children as they start their fourth grade year. As for books about September 11th, I still don't feel a need for them as I have so many artifacts and stories of my own. But I realize that books can be helpful for those who haven't the firsthand experience I had, for those who have children asking questions about 9/11, for those who want to begin a conversation with young children about that day. For those of you, here are four books I recommend:
- Maira Kalman's Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey was one of the first to appear in 2002. Spectacularly beautiful it also unnerved me and my fourth graders that year, but no doubt we were still too close to the events to consider it objectively. Kalman pulls no punches that is for sure, but for many children this book would be the right stepping-off point to talk about the day.
- In 2003 we were graced with Mordecai Gerstein's sublime presentation of Philippe Petit's extraordinary tightrope stunt between the towers in 1974, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This is my personal favorite of all the post-9/11 picture books for children, an exquisite memorial, celebrating this wild and unbelievable event in a place that is no longer there.
- Jeanette Winter's simple yet evocative, September Roses came out in 2004, telling the story two women from South Africa and the thousands of roses they brought to New York after 9/11. It is spare and moving and feels like a great book to start a conversation. As with all of these books, depending on the age of the children, you may want to supplement with other materials, say a careful use of primary sources (as the images might be too disturbing for young children so I urge caution).
- Carmen Agra Deedy, Thomas Gonzalez, and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah came out with 14 Cows for America last year, the true story of a Kenyan Maasai village's response to the events of September 11th. I like the different perspective this book provides, one from outside America, and think it could generate some excellent discussion in classrooms and families.
Also posted at educating alice